Reexamining the Logic of Closing the University of Liberia

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 5, 2007


An alumnus of the University of Liberia, nothing is more disheartening than to hear that my Alma Mata has been closed by the government. While a student at the University of Liberia, I experienced two closures of the university by the Doe government. Those abrupt closings of the university caused setbacks in my academic pursuit and my personal life, and thus I can fully empathize with the current students who are faced with the same fate. It is clear that the Sirleaf administration identified a major crisis in the governance of public higher education, and the University of Liberia in particular. But the steps that it has taken so far to remedy the problem emulate the faulty responses of its predecessors. It is even extreme when one considers the history of diminishing quality of education due in part to brain drain caused by the war.

I am speaking of the cowardly steps that include blaming the victims/students and faculty members activating for better learning and working conditions. No one, including this author supports violent responses on the part of the students, but equally so, closure of the university is a less than discerning solution. It is difficult not to suggest that the Sirleaf administration has again accumulated another leadership failure that adds to its other letdowns. I am not arguing that there will be no mistakes in the current government. Missteps are inherent features of bureaucratic entities. But that should also not be an excuse for continued gaffes especially when it pertains to important sectors of the society.

The goal of this paper is to share some basic understanding of the challenges facing public higher education in Liberia and to offer some suggestions regarding how to mediate them. But it is important to warn readers that this article does not pretend to offer a policy framework for resolving a problem so chronic that it has affected nearly all components of public higher education. I am comfortable to label this article as a social criticism of higher education governance accompanied by some ways in which to forge ahead. The key point that I wish to communicate are that the quality of any higher education institution depends on some essential factors. These include the governance framework, student selection, faculty recruitment, retention, and talent development, faculty research/instructional/publication reputation, the levels of community engagement and service by faculty and students, robust fundraising and stewardship practices, the quality of the institution’s facilities and technological endowment, and the link that the institution has to the labor force. In all these arenas, the University of Liberia is struggling, perhaps even failing in some instances. On this premise, I assert that the University of Liberia is in need of superior leadership because cumulatively, these erosions signify low student achievement and a preoccupation with reactive rather than proactive responses.

Disingenuous Use of National Security
Liberian pre-war history provide enough cues that when the government resorts to national security as rationale for its actions, closer examination of the facts are likely to uncover leadership failures. Samuel K. Doe and Charles G. Taylor used these tactics sufficiently as did some of their predecessors. The fact that a democratically elected government is also utilizing this deceitful strategy evokes enormous disappointment. It is not that the Sirleaf government received an infusion of brand new human beings who were not infected by the dictatorial bug. Nonetheless, some of us hoped that they learned enough lessons during the Doe and Taylor regimes in recent times to refrain from regurgitating their tyrannical practices. Worse, some of these people suffered under dictatorial rule as democratic activists spewing the necessities for and participating in, even leading demonstrations that have now being declared threat to national security. Surprisingly, only Labor Minister Samuel Kofi Woods has the gusto to stand up against this menacing trend.

Instead of taking a bold and courageous step to genuinely ask and resolve the causes of the leadership and related maladies that are underlying causes of the discontent expressed by the students and faculty members, the Sirleaf administration says that the makeshift mansion – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sits in close proximity to the University of Liberia. As a consequence, student activism on the university campus poses threat to national security. Nothing can be more pathetic than a claim of this nature. Higher education in Liberia is therefore a hostage to politicization of the leadership appointment process at the university. To function at the whims and caprices of the Executive Branch is to situate higher education governance between two detracting forces. On one extreme is the over-politicization factor and the other is the over-centralization counterpart.

Together, these forces make it difficult for the university to reap scholarly fruits: recruiting and retaining scholarly leaders with the residual effects being little or no research, publication, community service, and good teaching. Put another way, higher education is under resourced, invites mediocre planning, and the core offerings are not differentiated or diverse enough. Ultimately, the connection between the labor market and higher education is severed and the competitiveness of the nation’s workforce compromised. Already maligned for its apathy and indifference toward corruption, the Sirleaf administration has used the closure of the University of Liberia to reinforce its lack of political courage. After immodest claims by the Sirleaf administration that it would be different from its predecessors the timid and tired response to the University of Liberia crisis, including its less than stellar response to the growing corruption epidemic within its ranks bespeaks an old wine in new skin.

As its own Labor Minister, Samuel Kofi Woods, who himself, experienced school closing while a student at the university lamented: the underlying causes of this closure of the university must be investigated with utmost urgency and culprits held accountable. Surprisingly, the many other former student leaders and democratic activists in Sirleaf’s cabinet find it convenient not to speak against this closing because of the threat any such criticism might pose to their jobs. The scarcity of public trust in Liberia today is a result of these hypocritical responses on the part of people that some of us thought would use their well-deserved democratic credentials to change the ways that governance is done. Some of us held up the success of Sirleaf administration as a great triumph of liberalism not solely because she won, but because she surrounded herself with many whom we deemed as icons of democracy. Hopefully, this is the end of their political and professional aspirations – one term serving the Sirleaf administration because they are making progressive politics to which they aspired, nauseating to even the most tempered amongst us.

Comprehensive Reform
When you consider a university that has deteriorated in all respects and even bordered on breakdown, the only apt solution is a comprehensive reform. Comprehensive reform starts with structural and leadership changes and not with the students being deprived of educational opportunities. Has this negative trend not gone on for so long that a viable alternative, which serves the public interest – students, faculty, students’ parents, alumni, and funding sources increased in value and necessity? Could the Sirleaf administration not ask itself that leadership failures are parts of the soft underbelly of the problem at hand? Could it be possible that the present leadership of the university is not the best that the nation’s scholarly landscape has to offer? Is it possible that the university faculty is adequately fatigued because for so long it has been ignored? I recall that this is a university that has been reeling in and out of consciousness for years. And for Dr. Conteh, could the recurrent demonstrations of his constituents be indications that something is wrong with his leadership capacity? Or is this another case whereby President Sirleaf is demonstrating what has now become a pattern that when the public starts to express doubt in her appointees’ capacity to administer their post, she responds by targeting the citizens expressively affected by the failure for what has all the markings of coercion or intimidation?

For some keen observers of public higher education governance in Liberia, the closer you get to the operations of the University of Liberia, the murkier the picture of its state of affairs gets. They argue that the plan, which the Sirleaf administration hatched to close down the university, with which Dr. Conteh agreed, was devised to appease Dr. Conteh and his political patron. The students and faculty members were therefore victims of a leadership clamoring for sustainable solutions. But because they lacked meaningful solutions, the students became convenient scapegoats.

Chances are that the closure of the university will leave stakeholders with a greater sense of uncertainty wondering who really administers the university – President Sirleaf or President Conteh. These stakeholders have no one to whom they can assign responsibility for what went wrong – evidence yet still of the widening leadership vacuum in our country and at the university. If there were a decent chance that the closure of the university would improve conditions, Presidents Sirleaf and Conteh would emerge as winners of the political charade that they concocted. But by most measures the university would be in a worse state when they announce the opening of school because learning, the kernel of university life would have suffered. A first year student entering the University of Liberia when the school is allowed back in session has less than 50% chance of graduating in four years. And even if they manage to complete college, the likelihood that their credentials and skills will be punctured with potholes on their way to global competitiveness scares many of us.

Suggested Solutions
The University of Liberia needs intensive care. The doctors who can perform the needed interventions are scarce. But certain qualities are clear. No political stooge or a person whose credentials and leadership experiences are mired by underperformance or incompetence can carry out the interventions most needed. There is absolute no doubt that they must be a first rate scholar, but that alone is not enough. The University of Liberia needs an executive to lead it, and in my mind that is a quality that is presently wanting. That is the way to change the clout of the person entrusted with this very critical task; an executive who establishes and takes responsibility for outcomes, principally how they treat their stakeholders: students, parents, faculty members, alumni, funding sources, and the business community. An executive who combines leadership skills with academic credentials is even a fine grain remedy than the former. We need a university president that is accountable to his or her constituents and skilled enough to prevent himself or herself from falling prey to political snares and patronage. Inappropriate pressures will be exerted by those in government to hire their cronies, but if we depoliticize the presidency of the university, it is possible to avoid nepotism.

At this point in the development of the higher education system in Liberia, another attribute that we ought to desire in a university president is that he or she has demonstrated knowledge of individual, corporate, and foundation donors and the competence to attract funding to the university. The person must also be able to cultivate a viable alumni giving program. They must be able to recruit, hire, support and retain a competent development vice president responsible for scouting the donor landscape to establish endowments for the university. The president of the university in this era is one that has to have a commitment to the ethos of mission and outcome-based assessments or strategic management. Creativity in program development and a service orientation is needed to engage the university in service to the community. Essentially, the presidency of the University of Liberia appears to be sorely missing a person who has experience in designing and executing goal-oriented institutional change. Learning on the job is not an option when resources are scarce and the task at hand is massive.

Developing a dynamic leadership team at the University of Liberia hinges a great deal on the quality of one who occupies the presidency. Equally so, attracting scholars of remarkable repute cannot be achieved in the absence of one whose responsibility it is to oversee the development of academic policies and standards for recruiting scholars and their progressive talent development. Therefore, the Vice President for Academic Affairs must be one whose scholarly credentials are second to none. Curriculum design and development as well as ensuring best practices in instruction cannot be conducted by an inexperienced candidate whose credentials also do not match normal academic requirements of the post. Liberia has respected scholars and providing them the autonomy and incentives to rebuild our academic stock is possible, if the right leadership is brought to administer the university. Only a university president whose credentials and leadership reputation are impeccable will attract the abundant of Liberian and foreign scholars that are potentially in waiting to support the university in its rebirth.

The long-term solution to the higher education crisis in Liberia begins with an education summit. The goal of a national conference on education would be to determine if the current architecture of education at-large, erected many centuries ago, coupled with incremental modifications are apt to meet the changing demands of a post-conflict era. This means that we cannot just place exclusive responsibility for the crisis in higher education, particularly the closing of the University of Liberia on the Executive Branch of government. The shutting of the doors of the university also extends to our legislators. The legislators have done little or nothing to make higher education a priority and their failure to hone in the Executive Branch has provided the latter free reign to do as it wish in nearly all arenas of governance. Legislators have been remiss in speaking up against the slow rates of progress at the university and in education in general. Public policy making in Liberia has been fraught with extreme absence of results. The kind of degrading poverty and feudal bondage in which Liberians live today cannot be addressed when illiteracy is on a rise. Curbing illiteracy and the accompanying pathological problems in health cannot happen if the nation’s highest institution of learning continues to face recurrent closures.

I must make this important point. The laboring “castes,” the oppressed, and the bottom middle class (close to threshold for being declared poor) have one primary means of overcoming their fates – and the road to better quality of life runs through the University of Liberia or a comparable public institution. Unlike the illicitly rich, they cannot afford to send their children abroad for school. That is why it is so critical that those of us who were fortunate to have shaken off the snares of poverty must muster the strength and resolve to stand against what seems to be a strategy to maintain the inequalities that divided Liberians into haves and have nots.

If the legislators want to climb out of this hole, they must invest considerable time and attention to plan for the immediate and long-term future of the country. They must be willing to challenge the Executive Branch when and if it makes an attempt to excuse its appointees of responsibility for inefficiencies or failures. They must resist short-term solutions that create structural dependencies that are not in the social development interests of the nation, which leads to concentrating all of the higher education stock in Monrovia. In other words, the legislators should concentrate on differential policies by creating regional branches of the university that include skill-teaching institutions (community colleges) to preserve access, affordability, and customization to the local needs of all citizens and regions.

A higher education reform strategy in Liberia is incomplete if it fails to grant autonomy to the leadership of the institution. By autonomy, I mean that the practices that rendered private sector institutions competitive must be provided to public higher education institutions. The requirements for leadership must be corporate in nature and the resource acquisition and management practices must be aligned to corporate norms. Fiscal management must adhere to standards of transparency and accountability. I am not arguing for privatization, but I am suggesting that the university should be organized in ways that it can readily assess its comparative advantages and shortcomings, and use them as basis for ongoing readjustments.

If public higher education is reformed to become student-focused, differentiated to serve a broad spectrum of skill, career, and labor market needs; and investments are made in research, scholarship, and innovation; and intellectual properties are protected, Liberia will see return on its investments and its citizens will be capable of competing globally. If the war did something for Liberia, despite its many ills, it cultivated national capacity to undertake the rebuilding process. Responsibility lies with the government to harness this resource and/or create conducive environment for Liberians to stop the hemorrhaging. Hopefully, in the end, the university will become the hub of independent thinking and the building of democratic values.

In closing, I cannot help but wonder if economic integration and education move in lockstep, then why is it that the Sirleaf administration is quick to assert the importance of its economic policy, while allowing its education policy to lag? Maybe the Sirleaf administration needs to be reminded that no social investment leads to economic competitiveness, prosperity, distributive justice, and representative democracy than investments in education. Noteworthy, a far sighted post-conflict governance paradigm does not simply try to curb crises. It proactively examines the historical and social contexts and implications of its policy responses and intentionally configures remedies that have lasting value. Simply, higher education will thrive if the vagaries of despotic politics clothed in national security hysteria do not stand in the way.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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